Ladies and Gentlemen, This Is Cinerama
Thanks to the bold vision of a group of entrepreneurs 60 years ago, a new filmmaking technology was introduced that forever changed the way movies are produced and viewed. This technology launched the widescreen revolution of the 1950s, and it was called Cinerama. Only a handful of movies were produced in Cinerama, but CinemaScope, Todd-AO, Technirama, VistaVision, Panavision and every other widescreen technology that emerged in the ’50s owes its existence to the excitement created by this short-lived format.
The post-World War II era brought an entertainment revolution called television, and, within a few years, movie attendance dropped by more than one-third as more and more families installed these magical glowing boxes in their living rooms. As Hollywood movie moguls were unsure of how to address this challenge, a group of engineers and entrepreneurs were developing a solution of their own at a converted indoor tennis court in Oyster Bay, New York. An immersive multi-projector technology created by Inventor Fred Waller that was used to train aerial gunners during World War II was now considered to be the first use of virtual-reality technology, though that term wouldn’t be coined until decades later. After the war, Waller and his team continued to develop the technology with extensive tests and they discovered that man’s peripheral vision mostly encompassed a 146-degree arc. Waller also learned that human depth perception is most affected by peripheral vision (what one could see out of the corner of their eye), and the more a person’s peripheral vision is filled, the more immersive their experience would be. He then created a behemoth of a camera that integrated three 35mm camera mechanisms sharing a single shutter and pointing their 27mm lenses at 48-degree angles from each other. The resultant image would accurately re-create the entire field of view of the human eye with a comparable depth of field. This process of combining cinema and panorama was dubbed “Cinerama.”
Fox and other Hollywood studios had experimented in the past with widescreen technologies, including shoots on 70mm film in the late 1920s and Disney’s introduction of multichannel sound in 1940, but this was the first time widescreen technology and multichannel sound had been combined — and the result was indeed dramatic. Cinerama made its public debut on September 30, 1952 at New York’s Broadway Theatre with the release of This Is Cinerama, a glorified technology demonstration that was so popular it played to packed houses at premium prices for over two years. With its deeply curved screen and seven-channel stereophonic sound, Cinerama was the IMAX of its day, offering audiences an immersive experience that had never before been seen.
Writer/Producer Dean Devlin (Flyboys, Independence Day) is one of countless contemporary filmmakers influenced by Cinerama. “My favorite movie theater growing up was the Cinerama Dome [in Hollywood], and my favorite seat at the Cinerama Dome was front-row center,” says Devlin. “Part of the reason I wanted to sit front-row center was that concave screen that filled your peripheral vision. If you sat in that seat you were literally in the movie. The idea of Cinerama where I could literally turn my head and still be inside the screen created the sense that I was actually experiencing this as opposed to watching it and observing it.” As This Is Cinerama begins, the theater curtains only partially open as a small, 1.33:1 black-and-white image of narrator Lowell Thomas talks about the history of the recorded image from cave drawings until movies. When he proclaims, “Ladies and Gentlemen, this is Cinerama,” the curtains dramatically open to reveal that giant, curved screen and an opening sequence where the massive Cinerama camera was mounted on the front of a roller coaster — and that moment still has a big impact today. “This actually got you into the action in a way you had never seen before,” Devlin adds. “You watched it and you actually felt like you were on that roller coaster.”
The Cinerama process uses three projectors running in perfect sync. Each 35mm frame is six sprockets high (instead of the standard four-sprocket height) and the film runs slightly faster than normal at 26 fps. It required three projectionists plus an audio engineer who would custom mix the seven-channel soundtrack at every performance. During their first 10 years, Cinerama films were mostly travelogues along with only two scripted films produced in the three panel process, How the West Was Won and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm. As powerful as the format was in its original incarnation, Cinerama proved to be cumbersome to shoot and exhibit. It was ultimately replaced, beginning in 1963 with films that were shot in 65mm with anamorphic lenses for greater width. Special 70mm prints were optically altered to be projected onto curved screens but even this process faded away by the early 1970s, along with the practice of reserved-seat roadshow presentations.
Today, there are only three venues in the world that are still capable of running three-panel Cinerama: Pacific Theatres’ Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, theSeattle Cinerama and the Pictureville Cinema at the National Media Museum in Bradford, England. From September 28 through October 4, the Cinerama Dome will host a weeklong Cinerama Film Festival featuring three-panel prints of This Is Cinerama, How the West Was Won and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, as well as 2K digital restorations of several other classic Cinerama features, like It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and 2001: A Space Odyssey. To further mark Cinerama’s 60th anniversary, with the blessings and financial support of the Decurion Corporation (parent company of Cinerama Inc. and Pacific Theatres), a team of dedicated filmmakers took a restored Cinerama camera and created In the Picture, the first new film shot in original three-panel process in 50 years. In the Picture will have its world premiere at the Cinerama Film Festival. Cinerama’s John Sittig, who served as the film’s producer along with Decurion CEO Michael Forman, says that he and Filmmaker Dave Strohmaier had talked about the possibility of shooting some brief footage with a Cinerama camera in front of the Cinerama Dome. A few years earlier, Strohmaier made the documentary Cinerama Adventure, which is included in Warner Home Video’s How the West Was Won Blu-ray.
As word got out about In the Picture, companies and organizations like the American Society of Cinematographers, FotoKem and FUJIFILM Optical Devices USA, Inc. offered their goods and services at a deep discount with some donating labor costs altogether to make the production happen. Strohmaier wrote and directed the film, working with veteran Cinematographer John Hora, ASC, Assistant DP/Camera Operator Doug Knapp, Camera Operators Lance Fisher and David Tondeur, and Sound Mixer Lincoln Morrison. And with so many people wanting to be a part of the project, Sittig says the film took on a life of its own. The production team filmed at locations around Los Angeles over a three-month period, with the first shots taking place at the historic Lasky-DeMille Barn across the street from the Hollywood Bowl in January 2012. Principle photography wrapped months later in April at the Cinerama Dome during the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival.
The first step for the production was to make sure that the team had a working Cinerama camera. According to Sittig, only six Cinerama cameras were ever made and five of them were in Pacific Theatres’ possession. Ken Stone, a specialist in camera restoration, scavenged parts from several cameras to make one that was operable. “The camera was actually in pretty good condition,” reports Sittig. He also notes that the cables and their connections proved to be a big challenge because so many of those connector types are no longer in use, so handmade substitutes had to be fabricated. The camera itself was powered by a trio of standard automobile batteries, and Stone built a custom controller to adjust the camera’s speed.
Shooting with Cinerama cameras had always been a challenge due to its triple-lens architecture and exposure issues from 27mm lenses, and camera moves had to be very carefully planned. The production team could forget about zooming and dollying because there was no practical way to adjust the lenses’ alignment on the fly. This proved daunting for Strohmaier and his crew since no one had shot anything in this format for over half a century. Fortunately, Sittig had access to Cinerama’s archives and files, including notes from cameramen about optimal shooting angles and situations to avoid. The film crew also had to deal with exceptional logistical challenges, beginning with the need to haul between 1,500 and 2,000 pounds of equipment on every shoot. Setups were very difficult and there was no reflex viewing, so the crew had to temporarily replace the film magazines with a special scope that would only let the camera crew view one panel at a time. As a result, the camera would have to be realigned over and over until all three panels were properly framed. “We also were constantly looking for things to shoot that would help us blend the join lines between each of the three panels,” Sittig recalls. He points out that in movies likeHow the West Was Won, you’ll often see some kind of vertical object, like a fence post or tree or telegraph wires, to camouflage the join lines. And forget about close-ups — if the camera came too close to an actor or object instead of simply showing a larger continuous image, you could end up with each panel showing that object from a different angle. “With those 27mm lenses you had to be somewhat close or it would look like you were in the next county when you were shooting,” Sittig observes.
With Cinerama frames using 50-percent more film than traditional 35mm cinematography and running at 26 fps instead of 24 fps, each magazine could only hold about seven minutes worth of film. Camera loaders were on hand to label, unload and bag each exposed spool for the lab, and load fresh reels in the magazines, a process that took about 45 minutes to an hour. There were also sound issues since the sound blimps that originally covered the cameras no longer existed. The combined sound of three camera movements made shooting a noisy process, and extensive ADR was required in post. Editing the footage using contemporary technology would have been too expensive since there are no offline editing systems equipped to handle Cinerama’s six-perf-high, three-panel images. But the production came up with a creative solution in the form of a crude telecine. Dailies were run at the Cinerama Dome with a digital video camera placed in the back of the theater to capture the footage. Strohmaier then edited the captured footage and used a negative cutter to conform the 35mm originals to his edited version. As of press time, In the Picture continues its postproduction process with ADR and music before doing a seven-channel, Cinerama analog-audio mix at Chace Audio by Deluxe.
The 27-minute film will be shown several times during the week-long Cinerama Film Festival preceding select screenings of This Is Cinerama, Seven Wonders of the World, South Seas Adventure and Windjammer. Ticket information for the Cinerama Film Festival can be found on the ArcLight Cinemas/Cinerama Dome Website at https://www.arclightcinemas.com/news/promotion-cinerama?promo=spotlightM2. Sittig says there will be future screenings at the Cinerama Dome, and that Pacific Theatres will also make In the Picture available to the Seattle Cinerama and National Media Museum’s Pictureville Cinema in the U.K. for their Cinerama events.